The Cage by Andrea Newman (Published by Anthony Blond, 1966)
Andrea Newman, who died recently, was a British author who is best remembered for her novels which became steamy, gripping television dramas about characters whose family relationships are fraught with sexual tensions and desires.
ITV’s must-see series of 1976, Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, is a compelling narrative based on themes from Greek tragedy, including incest, sexual obsession, betrayal and interfamilial violence, depicted by attractive well-spoken actors and situated in the affluent, upper-middle-class metropolitan elite.
The drama was ground-breaking in its psychological exploration of taboo subjects and its presentation of women with strong and complex desires.
Until this point, Newman was a successful but not well-known writer, although her name may have been familiar to readers of Honey magazine in 1966. In that year the magazine published her serial called Enough Rope. This told the story of Val, a clever teenager with a clutch of O and A levels who becomes pregnant, has a shotgun wedding, as we used to say, and has to give up her university place. The serial was an abridged version of The Cage, Newman’s third novel.
Honey magazine was an interesting choice. The magazine was launched in 1960 and quickly became positioned as the go-ahead mag for lively, ambitious, aspirational teens-and-twenties.
The magazine promoted individuality — ‘who says you’ve got to look like the girl at the next desk’ — and featured a broader than usual range of careers as well as subjects such as architecture and politics. (In 1969, a readers’ poll of who they would like to see as the next Prime Minister of the UK showed an overwhelming majority for Enoch Powell. Make of that what you will.) The magazine’s selection of fiction, as shown by The Cage, was bold.
Val’s vale of despondency
But The Cage was a strange choice for a fashion magazine. The novel is a grim and at times upsetting read. We are supposed to sympathise with the main character Val, but her self-absorption and admittedly acknowledged snobbery turn the book into a long wail of self-pity.
Val lives in an unspecified village somewhere provincial with her widowed mother and her younger sister. She’s the academic one, who doesn’t get in to Oxford or Cambridge to read English but is happy to ‘settle’ for a place at London University. She’s a bit ‘schooly’, form captain, good at drama and sports, all that, but at the same time racy enough to have a sex life. And although she hasn’t got much money to spend on hair and make-up, she pulls off a look which you just know is pretty fab, with below-chin-length straight hair and more eyeliner than lipstick.
Yes, Val is the effortlessly cool successful girl you would love to hate. There’s something a little self-satisfied about her cleverness, and about her relentless good taste which makes her look down on those who don’t share it. At her wedding, Val’s mother looks ‘effortlessly right’ while her future mother-in-law is sneered at for her ‘carefully chosen navy suit that she called a costume’. More than a little class snobbery colours Val’s outlook.
Before the pregnancy, Val has everything going for her. She is looking forward to university where she will study a subject she loves, meet interesting people, including ‘the one’, with whom she will have fascinating conversations, and ‘gain an earning capacity that can surmount disaster’. She has a good-looking boyfriend who works in a bank. He’s got a nice car, she fancies him rotten and likes going out with him, even though they are not soulmates.
Oh dear. If it hadn’t been for a contraception failure, Val would have gone to London and no doubt fallen for the first bloke to quote Bob Dylan to her, or even, given her limited grasp of contemporary culture, The Beatles.
But there they are, and that is what it was like then. Unreliable contraception, illegal and unsafe abortion, disapproving, hostile and unhelpful attitudes to ‘unmarried’ mothers.
But Val will not be a single mother. Malcolm is crazy about her, and wants to marry her. They get married and set up home, and the bars of the cage of domestic life begin to close in.
The months of pregnancy and marriage are hard. Reluctant to let go of her dream, Val embarks on a course of reading and essay writing which emphasises the intellectual distance between her and Malcolm. But she is an annoying intellectual snob. She reads Milton while he ‘is busy identifying with James Bond’. He turns on the television. She says she can’t concentrate on Milton. He asks if she has to read Milton particularly. Oops. He thinks Gulliver’s Travels is a kids’ book. She is reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, he says he’s seen the film. Yes, Val, we get the picture, but just one more — oh, you don’t say, he gets Moll Flanders muddled up with Fanny Hill!
The birth of a notion
But while Val is reading Edith Sitwell’s life of Alexander Pope, Malcolm is reading a book about childbirth. Although we are encouraged to despise Malcolm as a kind of dim, bland, semi-detached suburban Mr James, it’s hard to do so.
From the beginning, he has embraced their situation. He worries about their future, he does countless sums on the back of envelopes, he gets a mortgage on a house which is cheaper than the rent they’re paying. He knows what she is giving up. He says he will look after the baby so that Val can go to evening classes. There isn’t any depth to Malcolm, but he says he can’t imagine life without Val and their daughter. You don’t want Val to be trapped and unfulfilled, but perhaps it’s the times we live in that make you think that kindness and integrity and loyalty shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
Oh, the baby. Val doesn’t want it. She tells Malcolm, ‘I hate it. I wish it was dead. In fact, I hope it dies so I won’t have to bloody well look after it.’ She herself is frightened by the strength of her feelings. The descriptions of her antipathy to the child, during the pregnancy and after the birth, are graphic and frightening, and seem almost to belong in a different book. Although at first Val plans to leave the baby and Malcolm, at the end of the book she is biding her time. But she is determined to leave. She tells the child, who she does grow to love, that one day they will go away together. It’s a gentler ending than you might have expected.
The Cage reminds us once again that the concept of ‘The Sixties’ meant little to vast swathes of the British population. As far as the cultural and social norms of the society it depicts are concerned, the novel could just as well have been set a decade earlier.
The liberal attitudes of the permissive society weren’t universally adopted, as can be seen in what happens to Val’s friend Marianne, who left school early with poor results.
Her name, perhaps deliberately, stands out in a book studded with Sandras and Sallys and Jeans and Hildas, and fits her sexually active persona. She gets a ‘reputation’, is dumped by her unconvincing boyfriend when he finds out about her past, and ends up supporting herself by selling sex.
In the end she takes her own life, and the newspaper which reports it calls her a ‘convicted prostitute’. It’s a disturbing sub-plot, which illustrates the destructive power of double standards, and shows that women paid the price for sex in different ways.
There is one consoling thought for Val — if she had been in one of the later books, her husband would undoubtedly have slept with her mother.